$10b drop in the Ocean is nuts

Editorial | Mary Ma 9 Jan 2020

It's alarming to learn that Ocean Park is seeking a huge HK$10 billion in taxpayers' money to rescue it from crumbling. The timing could not be worse, with Hong Kong in the middle of a recession and the economic outlook for 2020 riddled with uncertainty.

Is it fair to blame growing regional competition and the ongoing civil unrest for all the problems Ocean Park is facing - without even questioning the competence of its management?

The problems did not emerge out of the blue. To the contrary, the first signs appeared a few years ago when the number of visitors to the Southern District theme park began to fall after years of growth.

I am rather concerned that, even if Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po is able to free up HK$10 billion to rescue it by cutting spending elsewhere, the money could prove to be ill-spent at the end of the day if Ocean Park is unable to produce a business model that can sustain its existence for the long term.

As I've questioned before, would it be better to allocate the park's vast site for alternative use, including housing, if the attraction is too ill to be cured?

Do you recall when housing minister Frank Chan Fan tested the waters earlier by asking if Hong Kong Disneyland was willing to give up some of the sites reserved for its expansion to let him build temporary housing on them?

I wonder if Chan should have put the question to Ocean Park instead.

The trouble with Ocean Park is that it is suffering from its market positioning that has become obscure over the years. When it was founded more than 40 years ago, it was a non-profit organization with a clear emphasis on marine conservation - and its attraction was marine life.

It is still a non-profit organization but its identity is no longer as clear.

It is doubtful that - even if the park is eventually given HK$10 billion or a negotiated lower amount to upgrade its facilities - it might still be unable to distinguish itself from the Chimelong Paradize in Guangzhou.

Unless Ocean Park can render itself as a distinct identity that none in the region can compete with, the money would drain away without having any effect no matter how much was injected into the park.

Hong Kong Disneyland operates in the same difficult environment. Yet, the global brand is so unique to the Magic Kingdom that attempts by some mainland tycoons to duplicate its model have been unsuccessful. That's because the duplicates can never carry the Disney name.

The joint venture with the SAR government in Sunny Bay on Lantau Island can continue to anchor itself on its distinct identity.

But the government must clarify what Ocean Park will become - not only a few years from now, but also over the next 10 to 20 years - as it approaches the legislature for funding.

Drops in visitor numbers have created a temporary impact on tourism and I'm sure the numbers will rebound once the political crisis is resolved.

But the positioning of Ocean Park is a long-term concern.

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